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Africa, Small Firms Can Benefit from Trade

James Wright | 8/11/2010, 11:36 a.m.

Increased trade between nations that is fair and profitable for the United States is one of the components for the country's economic recovery, a key advisor to President Obama said recently. Ambassador Ron Kirk, the U.S. Trade Representative, in an interview conducted by the Washington Informer on Tue., Aug. 3 at his office in Northwest, said that foreign trade has emerged as an important facet of Obama's economic and foreign policy.

"The president recognizes that our ability to sell products, goods and services to our markets abroad is a great way to create jobs," Kirk, 56, said. "Ninety-five percent of the exports in this country are done by small businesses and we are looking into new markets for these businesses to grow and expand."

Kirk oversees the Office of the United States Trade Representative which is responsible for developing and recommending trade policy to the president, conducting trade negotiations with foreign countries, and coordinating trade policy within the U.S. government. His office also enforces U.S. trade policy and serves as the U.S. government's representative on matters before such international trade organizations such as the World Trade Organization.

"The benefits of trade are widely distributed in this country," he said. "Through trade, we have access to things like cheaper clothes and the explosion of consumer electronics is an example of a success of trade. But our trading partners have to be fair also."

Kirk said that the Obama administration wants countries to open up their markets to American products as well.

"We live in a world that is now globally interconnected, we are an economic community," he said. "We however have to play by the same rules and we will trade with countries that support American values. That means that we trade with countries that respect their workers right to organize and respect the environment."

The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative was established in 1962 with the support of President John F. Kennedy who felt that the country's trade policy, implementation and enforcement should be administered by an independent agency and not under the U.S. State Department.
Kirk, who is the first Black to be the U.S. Trade Representative, manages a staff of 200 professionals with offices in Geneva, Switzerland and Brussels, Belgium.

Kirk has achieved many firsts throughout his career, including his selection as the first Black male to serve as the Secretary of State of Texas in 1994; his election as the first Black mayor of Dallas in 1995; and the first Black Texan to win nomination by a major political party (Democratic) for a U.S. Senate seat in 2002.

Kirk is a native of Austin, Texas and attended Austin College in Sherman, Texas and the University of Texas School of Law in his hometown. He has worked for the late Senator and Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen and for the City of Dallas as an assistant city attorney.

Kirk was a co-chairman of the Obama-Biden campaign in Texas in 2008. Kirk said that he wanted to help businesses increase trade with Africa and that AGOA (African Growth and Opportunity Act) is the chief vehicle for trade with the continent.

"We take seriously our relationship with Africa and that is why we have worked to change that relationship from 'aid-based' to 'what can we do for Africa,' " he said.

"In the past, we have left large parts of Africa out of trade and we are reversing that. We want to help Africa compete in the global marketplace."

Kirk said that AGOA has been a "tremendous success." He said that American trade with African countries has doubled since the enactment of AGOA in 2000 and that African firms doing business with American firms has quadrupled.

"AGOA has strengthened Africa's ability to trade with the rest of the world," he said. "There are still some issues of corruption and political unrest but Africa has matured and we are dealing with African countries on fair terms."

Kirk understands that the United States is in steep competition with China for business opportunities.

"In the past, the United States would go to an African country and lecture to them about their politics," he said.

"While we were doing this, China would come over with buckets of money and that made the Chinese easier to deal with. However, two problems arose: one, the Chinese would not hire African workers for projects and there has been huge environmental degradation."

Kirk said that it is the goal of the Obama administration to use trade to encourage Africa to become more economically independent and to sustain growth in its commerce. Small, minority, women and disadvantaged firms will play a major role in trade through the U.S. Trade Representative's Office of Small Business, Market Access and Industrial Competitiveness.

"The president has repeatedly said that it will be the growth of small businesses that fuels the economic recovery," he said. "We try to educate small firms on the advantages of trade by teaching them how to access foreign markets and ways to raise capital. We do this in partnership with the Department of Commerce and the Small Business Administration."

Kirk said that he wants to debunk the myth that only large corporations can engage in trade.

"Anyone that has a product to sell can engage in trade and we can help them," he said.

Kirk said that he is happy in his job as U.S. Trade Representative and sees exciting opportunities ahead.

"I am happy that I am working with a president who values the importance of trade and how it can help everyday people," he said.